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Scripting languages vs. programming languages: What's the difference?

At a glance

  • Scripting language generally is for writing pieces of code and is typically considered easier to learn but slower and less efficient to run.
  • Programming language typically is for writing a program’s full code; however, it can take more time because the entire code must be written as a whole.
  • Scripting language is often used for tasks such as automation, configuration management and prototyping, while programming is often used for developing complex software applications.
  • Want to learn scripted and programming languages on your schedule? Learn about UOPX’s Scripted and Compiled Programming Languages Certificate (Undergraduate).

Scripting and programming languages

Scripting and programming languages provide directions that software and operating systems follow to perform specific functions. Scripting and programming languages both are part of the broader field of coding but have slightly different applications. For example, programming may be preferred for a customized function. However, scripting can be a faster solution — albeit with less flexible results. Overall, the distinction between the two can vary depending on the task or project.


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Software engineers and programmers use both language types in their work, with the choice depending on each project’s details, goals and time frame. Other tech pros, such as developers, are familiar with scripting and programming systems. Scripting is typically used to write smaller pieces of code while programming is generally used to write an entire software application.

If you want to become a computer programmer, engineer or development professional, you must understand the differences between both of these languages. We sat down with J.L. Graff, MBA, associate dean of UOPX’s College of Business and Information Technology, to learn more about these technical terms.

“While scripting languages and programming languages are often used interchangeably as scripting languages are programming languages, there are some key differences to note,” Graff explains. “Programming languages use a string of instructions sent to the computer to complete a task. Think of programming languages as way to convert or translate our human thoughts into computer language. Scripting languages are used usually to interpret and execute one line or command at a time and are often more simple to write and implement. In addition, object-oriented scripting language is capable of developing web apps, scripts, cross-platform apps, games and pen-testing exercises.”

 

What is a scripting language?

Scripting languages rely on existing programs, which are known as interpreters, so they require line-by-line conversion. The coder writes commands, which the interpreter executes one at a time. These languages need a prebuilt runtime environment in which the script is interpreted rather than compiled ahead of time, meaning the code is not translated into machine code until it is executed. This makes scripting much less code-intensive and easier to learn and use than compiled ones. It also means they can be slower and less efficient.

Scripting languages have various purposes. Developers and engineers can use them to automate or enhance existing programs or websites, connect different components or processes, or work with databases and software written in different languages. 

 

Examples of scripting languages

Software, app and website development pros select scripting languages based on specific-use cases. For example, AppleScript is used to automate functions in Mac operating systems. Other scripting languages include Lua, Perl, PowerShell, VBScript, Bash and Zsh.

These can all be used for different purposes. “Lua is a scripting language used for game development, including to implement various aspects of game logic,” explains Christina Hauri, the curriculum manager for UOPX’s College of Business and Information Technology. “For example, if you want a game character to move one step to the right when the ‘W’ key is pressed on the keyboard, you could use Lua to create the code to make that happen.”

Many students learn languages like Python or JavaScript early in their academic careers primarily because they don’t require prior technology knowledge, are fast and easy to use, and have many free resources, tutorials and trainings to get started. Both are versatile languages to get programs working and can be used for prototype development.

Here is more information about Python, JavaScript and other common scripting languages:

  • Python is one of the most popular general-purpose languages. It’s simple to learn the basics and easy to test and debug because of its efficiency. An active Python community makes it easy to find existing code packages and plug-ins to simplify the coding process.
  • Ruby is another user-friendly scripting language for server-facing web development. Programmers use it for websites, web applications and other development projects. Because of the syntax (the words and symbols used for code), Ruby is easy to learn for English speakers. Both Ruby and Python can be a programming language depending on how they’re used. 
  • JavaScript is used to create and enhance interactive and media elements. Website and application developers often learn it for front-end (user-facing) projects. 
  • Lua is a lightweight scripting language known for creating fast processes. Because of this quality, it is well-known for coding online games.

What is a programming language?

Programming languages do not require an interpreter program. This makes them ideal for building programs from the ground up. Even though using programming languages for software development requires more time, developers often have more control over every aspect of the project.

Programming languages are compiler-based because they are compiled — essentially, they rely on a specific program that translates code into a machine language — or machine code — for a computer or mobile device.

“Programming languages such as C++ are used to program robotics, self-driving vehicles and various media platforms,” Graff says.

However, programming languages do not need a whole environment to run as scripting languages do. This trait gives developers more control and flexibility. However, it can also increase development and maintenance time.

 

Examples of programming languages

Some of the first computer codes, including COBOL and Basic, were programming languages. Today, the following languages are widely used:

  • C++ is for expansive applications and large software projects. Many business systems use C++. Many Mac OSX and Microsoft Windows programs, including Microsoft 365, rely heavily on C++. 
  • C# is another member of the C language family. It is a component-oriented language — developers can use different modules to create complex programs without worrying about the exact code of each module.
  • Java is similar to C languages. However, its structure makes it ideal for internet-connected applications for websites and smartphones.

Even though programming languages are known to be more complicated, computer science and IT students can learn the basics of one or more programming languages through educational courses or their own experiences.

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Key differences between scripting and programming languages

As Spanish is to Italian, scripting and programming languages have plenty in common. Here is where they part ways:

  • Scripting languages are often used for tasks such as automation, configuration management and prototyping. Programming languages are often used for developing complex software applications.
  • Scripting languages are generally interpreted. Programming languages are typically compiled. This means that scripting languages are executed directly by the interpreter, while programming languages are first translated into machine code by the compiler before being executed.
  • Scripting languages are typically more dynamic. This means that scripting can be changed and extended while it is running, while programming languages must be recompiled after changes are made.

Some of the differences between scripting and programming languages are subjective. For instance, many professionals consider scripting languages like JavaScript easier to learn, use and test than programming languages. However, they lack the customization, scalability and standards of programming languages. 

 

The learning curve and accessibility

Scripting languages can be more accessible from a student’s perspective. When choosing a computer language to learn, many opt for Python, Ruby, JavaScript or another popular scripting system.

At the same time, those intent on business software or mobile app development may want to spend time learning C++ or Java. Despite the steeper learning curve, these programming languages are necessary for specific development projects.

 

Performance and efficiency

Both programming and scripting languages have trade-offs related to performance and efficiency. While scripting languages are easier to use and test during the development process, they may lack the performance capabilities of programming languages, which can execute and run in any environment. 

 

Choosing the right language for your project

In most cases, scripting languages are the better choice for web-based and internet-connected development. In many such projects, developers work to expand or enhance a program or app using an existing framework. Since scripting languages do not require memory, they are the preferred choice for online development.

For large-scale projects, scripting languages may be too slow and limiting. In addition to business systems, some mobile device apps requiring a high level of performance rely on Java or C++. Once the original program is complete, scripting languages can add functionality and enhancements.

The convergence of scripting and programming languages

Improvements in coding and hardware capabilities have enhanced scripting languages. The primary drawback of Python, JavaScript and their ilk is the need to interpret code one line at a time. However, faster hardware and more advanced approaches to scripting have closed the efficiency and performance gaps and given scripting languages some programming language-like attributes.

Anyone interested in a career in software engineering, programming or design can learn the basics of computer languages in a tech degree program or a computer-related certificate program. Meanwhile, advanced developer certifications often deal with topics like choosing the correct coding languages and framework for your project. 

Scripted and compiled programming languages at UOPX

If you’re interested in learning more about scripted and programming languages, consider earning a Scripted and Compiled Programming Languages Certificate (Undergraduate) at UOPX.

In this program, you’ll learn how to use Python and Java to solve common challenges as well as how to create applications for cybersecurity, information technology, data analysis, software development, application development, mobile development and web development.

This offers practical applications as well. “You will learn the basics of an object-oriented scripting language capable of developing web apps, scripts, cross-platform apps, games and pen-testing exercises,” Graff says. “You will learn and reinforce foundational skills and learn new topics such as modules, files, inheritance, recursion, plotting, and searching and sorting algorithms. You will learn to apply programming skills and knowledge to basic forensic investigation, port scanning and network analysis needed in cybersecurity.”

These concepts are also taught in the following degree programs:

Learn more about flexible, online programs in the field of IT at University of Phoenix!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

 

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